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Master gardener gives talk on creating a bird-friendly yard

Tufted titmice are among our region's many delightful bird species.
Randi B. Hagi
Tufted titmice are among our region's many delightful bird species.

The Piedmont Master Gardeners gave a presentation in Charlottesville earlier this week on how to create a bird-friendly yard. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

[sound of birdsong and wind fades under]

Our wild bird population, like much of the world's biodiversity, is declining. The North American Bird Conservation Initiative, or NABCI, reports that the U.S. and Canada have lost 3 billion breeding birds – that's about a quarter of all birds – in the last 50 years. That includes a 27% decrease in Eastern forest birds, and a 34% decrease in grassland birds.

However, conservation efforts can be effective – according to the NABCI, wetland birds are actually making dramatic gains in number, thanks to funding and policy investments.

If you'd like to help out our feathered friends, Leigh Surdukowski has some tips for you. She's a master gardener and naturalist, and co-founder of the Monticello Bird Club.

Leigh Surdukowski is a master gardener and naturalist.
Randi B. Hagi
Leigh Surdukowski is a master gardener and naturalist.

LEIGH SURDUKOWSKI: So let's take a look – what do birds need in order to thrive in your yard? Basically, they need shelter, food, water, and a healthy habitat.

She spoke at The Center at Belvedere in Charlottesville on Tuesday evening.

SURDUKOWSKI: So what I'm promoting is that you shrink your lawn. Take it from being a wall-to-wall carpet and make it a little area rug surrounded by native plants … and embrace the idea that a beautiful lawn is not made up of a boring monoculture of turf grass. Rather, a beautiful lawn is a mixture of grasses, violets, clovers, and moss that support our native bees, butterflies, and birds.

Surdukowski explained the necessity of native plants to bird species. Even if you supplement their diet with nuts and seeds in a bird feeder, they rely heavily on bugs, particularly while raising their young. And to have a thriving insect and caterpillar population in your yard, you need native plants – particularly keystone species such as oaks, cherries, and willows. Surdukowski said that a nest of chickadee babies needs around 6,000 - 9,000 caterpillars to survive to adulthood.

SURDUKOWSKI: … and it breaks my heart to think that a bird that lives here all year is struggling to survive, is struggling to feed its young.

With photos of her own yard, she demonstrated how planting in layers can create a rich habitat suitable to many species.

Chickadees stay put through the winter, rather than migrating.
Chris Luczkow
Chickadees stay put through the winter, rather than migrating.

SURDUKOWSKI: Warblers frequently like to hang out at the tops of the canopy trees. Woodpeckers, creepers, they like to go up and down the tree trunks. Catbirds like to hang out in the shrubs, and down at the bottom you're going to have a lot of sparrows.

Another key component of a healthy ecosystem is keeping invasive species out. Surdukowski went over some of the "most wanted" invasive plants in our area – like multiflora rose, tree-of-heaven, and kudzu. She directed attendees to the organization Blue Ridge PRISM's website for information about how to tackle each one.

Charlottesville resident Kay Flanagan was disappointed to hear that butterfly bushes are an invasive species. They may attract adult butterflies, but they don't feed the caterpillars.

KAY FLANAGAN: I planted these butterfly bushes about two years ago, and they're huge! They're very successful, and now I have to dig them out. It's like, "no! I knew it!"

Flanagan said the talk encouraged her to plant more native species to benefit her avian neighbors.

FLANAGAN: I have a feeder, so I have lots of titmice and sparrows and chickadees and cardinals.

I asked Surdukowski if she had any suggestions for townhouse- and apartment-dwellers who have limited outdoor space to work with. It's still worth it to create a mini-habitat –

SURDUKOWSKI: … by putting pots and putting in smaller plants, growing things like – Virginia sweetspire is a shrub, some of our native pollinator plants – your goldenrods, they bring in lots of pollinators, blueberry bushes.

The Piedmont Master Gardeners' next lecture is coming up on March 9th – a virtual seminar on using water features to attract birds and other wildlife to your garden. And if you've a mind to do a little citizen science next weekend, February 17 - 20 is the Great Backyard Bird Count, when birdwatchers all over the world identify and count birds to help scientists understand population trends.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.